I watched a production of Shostakovich’s *Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk* online on June 18, 2021 (it was filmed in March 2019). It was production done by Birmingham Opera, performed in a night club. It was directed by Graham Vick, who directed the Met production of this same opera (it was the first show I saw at the Met, in 1994). I love the opera, it’s unique.
The production looked like it was done on a shoestring, which is always refreshing. The leading lady’s fake fur coat told a story in itself. Chrystal E. Williams was supreme as Lady Macbeth, aka Katerina. She has a voice and is an intensely committed performer. Eric Greene played her father-in-law, another strong performer. Joshua Stewart played her husband, a juicy voice and a handsome dude. Too bad he was playing such a drip.
Conductor Alpesh Chauhan did a glorious job with the score - - but then the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is very highly regarded. Sir Simon Rattle was their artistic director for most of the 80s and 90s, and he’s no slouch!
In the Met production the part of Katerina’s lover, Sergey, is portrayed as a sexy bad boy. In this production he’s an asshole and a full-on rapist! That certainly puts another level onto Katerina choosing him as a lover, it makes her attraction to him more complex because she sees him for what he is. Brendan Gunnell had what they used to call the <<physique du role.>> He was a husky guy with a big beard and a rough, surly manner. Piles of ping in his voice, which you need in this part.
The production was fascinating. The audience appeared to be standing the whole time. The director included many shots of them and their reactions. The scene where Katerina and Sergey have sex for the first time is scored with amazingly vulgar music, an early music critic referred to it as “pornophony.” Vick staged this with the couple humping under the bedspread and various people in the audience (chorus members?) blowing up balloons. Then during the (ahem) falling action, the air was let out of the balloons. Much laughter from the audience.
The production was done in English, with some HBO language (always a little thrill to hear dirty words in an opera performance). The father-in-law’s death scene was particularly grisly, as it should be. *Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk* is sort of the *Law and Order: SVU* of the opera repertoire.
I think my favorite part of the score is the orchestral interlude after Boris’s murder, which in this production was staged as his funeral. Shostakovich wrote a grand, extraordinary passacaglia, full of weight and drama. The orchestra played it with all the grandeur it deserved.
Jim Kryshak (a friend from Madison) had a solo scene in the second act, playing the character with the charming name The Seedy Lout. He’s the drunk who discovers the body of Katerina’s husband. He was fantastic, went after it like there was no tomorrow. That’s the nice thing about a small role like this, you can really go for it.
The final scene is set at a penal colony in Siberia. The scene opens with a character called The Old Convict singing a devastating aria in F minor about the grim life of the penal colony. Director Graham Vick made the interesting choice to have the role sung by the same singer who had played Katerina’s father-in-law, and to have him wearing a tuxedo and sitting on a stool in front of a red velvet curtain. It was a chilling, Brechtian touch.
Katerina’s final, desolate aria is the culmination of her role and Williams sang it with sensitivity and pathos. She was aided by the fact that Vick had her wearing her wedding gown, a creepy touch that was also used in the Met production. One choice that didn’t quite land for me: Vick had various characters wearing rat heads at various moments in the show and for the finale he had many members of the chorus wearing them. I don’t know what it was supposed to mean, maybe it made more sense in person. The final chorus, a short repeat of the Old Convict’s aria, packed a punch, even with the rat heads.